Friday, 30 March 2012

Ms. 45 (1981)

A rape and revenge film usually follows a simplistic three-stage structure - a woman is raped or gang raped and maybe also tortured and then left for dead, however she survives and rehabilitates herself and when strong again she takes revenge on her attacker (s). Abel Ferrara’s ‘Ms. 45’ very much falls into this sub-genre with inspiration taken from Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974). However, the revenge of Thana our anti-heroine here played by the beautiful late Zoë Tamerlis Lund is more complex for a number of reasons. The screenplay co-written by Ferrara and Nicholas St. John does not follow by the book the foundations laid down for a heroine’s narrative passage in seeking retribution against her rapist (s). It is also quite a different kettle of fish for a movie of the ilk for tweaking the formula to also incorporate a feminist hybrid version of Roman Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and Michael Winner’s ‘Death Wish’ (1974).

Thana does not focus on getting one of the actual perpetrators - the first of her attackers who got away played by Abel Ferrara in a cameo. This is where Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ comes into play. Thana is tortured by nightmares and hallucinations of him stalking her causing her to lose her grip on reality seeing all men as a potential threat as she sees them as that rapist. The men on the receiving end of her wrath are generally sleazebags but do not necessarily deserve to die.

At one point after the killing of one such creep a flash fashion photographer who comes on to her, Thanda starts to feel a sense of empowerment over males. Making herself up and dressing up in an all-black outfit, she ventures out at night going out of her way to seductively attract the dregs of society gunning them down with the .45 caliber pistol she kept from the second of her attackers she did kill. This is very similar to Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey venturing out into the also setting of New York hunting muggers with the nickel-plated .32 Colt Police Positive he had received not long after the murder of his wife as a present from a client. He does this out of anger and frustration due to a gang belonging to this same criminal element being his wife’s killers and the rapists of his daughter with the police unable to capture them. This makes ‘Ms. 45’ more ‘Death Wish’ than 1982’s ‘Death Wish II’ then in which Kersey’s ambiguous character traits were removed and the revenge non-abstract as he was reinvented as a straight up angel of death actually seeking vengeance against the gang who wronged him for raping and murdering his daughter and housekeeper.

In ‘Ms. 45’, after a moment with Thanda that echoes Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) practicing his gunplay and acting out threats in front of the mirror that further emphasizes her detachment from reality we come to the intense finale at her work’s Halloween fancy dress party. Do not read the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid a spoiler. Wearing a nun’s habit that she donned in the previous scene, Thana’s mental stability has all but deteriorated and she is now a full blown unstable misanthrope killer shooting men simply for being men captured all in slow-motion and it takes one of her female friends purposely portrayed earlier in the film as a strong feisty character to stop her. She literally stabs Thana in the back and when Thana turns around to shoot her but sees a woman, she instead thanks her for stopping her rampage. The female gaze is in full effect here with women being the stronger sex.

Like Madeline played by Christina Lindberg in Thriller: A Cruel Picture Zoë Tamerlis Lund’s Thana is a mute. This gives her like Madeline that overwhelming sense of at first helplessness unable to cry out as we watch her with such empathy as she is violated. Lund is brilliant in her role as she gives it her all with convincing facial reactions to her emotional pain. The rape scenes here are not as brutal as say I Spit on Your Grave(1978) or even the 2010 remake and there is no nudity either but no matter how less graphically depicted a sequence of such a vile act is it is never the less uncomfortable to watch. This is especially when we are seeing a woman without the aid of speech unable to shout out for help. It is though during her second rape that we see one of the deviations from the rape and revenge book 101.

The shy mousy mute works as a seamstress in the garment district of the city and when walking home from her job one day she is grabbed off the street by a masked stranger (Ferrara) and dragged into a back alley she is raped at gunpoint. Returning to her apartment, she finds that a burglar has broken in and again she is raped with a gun to her face. It might seem a bit unbelievable that one person could be so unlucky to have lightning strike twice during such a short period of time but this second attack on Thana actually serves as a narrative device. It is during her molestation that she finds the strength to fight back hitting her attacker twice over the head with a large apple shaped paperweight that is laying by the side of the sofa they are on just as his gun falls out of his hand. As he is on the floor in pain, she picks up an iron off the top of a nearby ironing board and bludgeons the man to death with one whack of it. She dismembers the body putting its parts into bags and gradually disposes of it in different locations of New York.

This is where Thana gets her pistol and the rehabilitation part of her journey towards becoming “Ms. 45” is bypassed with the pace leaning of her transition taking place during one of the very movements that has caused her metal decline - a misanthropic lady of vengeance born of chaos. When Thana is getting rid of one of the body parts a man spots her, picking it up he chases after her to give it back thinking she has forgot it. When Thana comes to a dead end in an alleyway and fearing that she will be sexually assaulted again she shoots him dead. At first, she is shocked at her actions but ultimately it gives her more taste for revenge leading to her calmly killing the annoyingly pushy fashion photographer and from then on she takes much sadistic glee in her murderous activities.

Like Scorsese, Abel Ferrara is very much a New York-centric filmmaker. Like his peer, he makes you not just see the city but feel it too. His New York is very much like a character of its own a living breathing antagonist to his lead characters that struggle in its harsh existence. Rough and uncompromising with the subject matter he covers the director never strives to make his ideas commercially viable cinema yet his movies always have a slick visual style and here is no different even with a measly budget of just $67,000 it is still an attractive affair with the crisp cinematography accompanied by an variedly interesting surreal soundtrack. Much like in his preceding debut, 1979’s ‘The Driller Killer’ that depicted a young man’s violent nihilistic assault on the society that had mistreated him played by the director himself here we have a young woman who is the embodiment of victimized women at the hands of oppressive misogynist men dealing out the death to the male population. Although at first we are sympathetic to her plight by the second act we start to question her actions as she begins to enjoy her work generalizing men as the enemy.

Zoë Tamerlis Lund would go on to co-write and have a supporting role as a junkie in Ferrara’s brilliant ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (1992) starring Harvey Keitel giving a powerhouse performance in a tale of the catholic redemption of a corrupt police officer that highlights the moral and physical abuse of the human condition. The immensely talented Lund sadly died of heart failure at the age of just 35 due to heroin addiction and it is a damn shame we did not get to see what else she was capable of doing. ‘Ms. 45’ remains her best-known work, it is easily one of Abel Ferrara’s most memorably powerful films, and I would have loved to see these two collaborate again. Highly recommended.

**** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Brilliant stuff Dave, and a fantastic selection. Yep, simply one of the best of the rape and revenge films - leagues ahead of say Savage Streets, and easily one of the most affecting thanks to Zoë Lund's incredible performance. When I think about I Spit On Your Grave, I get the sense that Jennifer Hills is a strong enough character to rebuild her life after the events of the film, but with Thana, she is pulled irrevocably into the abyss. In that sense it's a heart-breaking film. Lund is so absorbed in the performance I often find it difficult to seperate Thana from the real Zoë Lund and I almost don't recognize her in Bad Lieutenant... Incidentally, the first screenshot with Abel Ferrara in that creepy glass mask reminds of Bob Dylan wearing a similar mask in his 1978 film Renaldo and Clara. I wonder had Ferrara seen it ? Finally, I would highly recommend the French DVD of Ms.45, fully uncut, English audio and with removable French subs.

    1. Thanks, Wes. 'Ms. 45' is a true one off for a rape and revenge film. It is a great example of a director and his lead working closely together to produce something unique with the formula.

  2. For my money, the best of the "rape/revenge" films. Zoe knocks it out of the park and I'd say this is where Ferrara really "found" himself as a director, that perfectly balanced mixture of style and grit, I've always described his style as the grind and arthouses meeting in the middle. One of his best films, a personal favorite of mine. Exellent write up.

    1. Thanks, Tom. It's definitely one of the best. Another contender for the all time greatest rape and revenge film would be 'Thriller: A Cruel Picture' - This is my favourite Abel Ferrara film along with 'Bad Lieutenant'.